Mike Weinstein told only part of the story in his election night remarks about his substantial loss (64 percent to 36 percent) to Aaron Bean in the Aug. 14 Republican primary for the newly drawn state Senate District 4 seat.
“The election was not about two candidates,” Weinstein told The Florida Times-Union. “It was about who had the most power and the most access to money out of Tallahassee. The campaign was taken over by a power struggle out in Tallahassee.”
This race is one example of a power grab from outside the state — a demonstration of the power of cash in the political process.
At an estimated $4.5 million, it was the most expensive two-person race in Jacksonville history, according to a review of state campaign finance records. A sizable chunk of the nearly $3 million that funded Bean’s race came from corporate and billionaire benefactors allied with the Washington, D.C.-based American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC describes itself as a nonpartisan organization working for free-market and limited government principles by connecting state legislators with corporations. Critics such as the American Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group, describe ALEC as a shadowy corporate front group and “bill mill.” The Center for Media and Democracy, an investigative, not-for-profit journalism group, says ALEC has “an extreme agenda to expand corporate power and limit the rights of ordinary Americans.”
An examination of 1,400 direct contributors to the Bean campaign through July 28 turned up 62 easily identified as current or former ALEC associates, and a few who are family members or employees of ALEC associates. Most gave the maximum $500 contribution allowed by law, for a combined total of $30,500, a relatively small percentage of the $406,000 Bean raised for his primary race. (Weinstein received a mere $2,500 from the ALEC associates who gave to Bean.) However, 36 of those 62 sources gave more than $11.3 million to the Florida Republican Party in less than three years. Donations from four of them exceeded $1 million: Blue Cross and Blue Shield, $3.1 million; the GEO Group (and affiliates) $1.043 million; Progressive Energy, $1.4 million; and TECO, $1.6 million.
In turn, the Republican Party of Florida, as of Sept. 2, gave more than $2.75 million to a Republican legislative leadership committee (the Florida Conservative Majority operated by Sens. Don Gaetz, Andy Gardiner and Joe Negron), which in turn gave $2.8 million to the Liberty Foundation of Florida, which poured $2.5 million into advertising to help Bean defeat Weinstein.
Alachua County Republican Party chairman William “Stafford” Jones, who operates the Liberty Foundation, received $40,000 in July 2012 for another committee he operates, Accountability in Government, from Florida Republican leader Negron’s Florida Conservative Action Committee.
In late July, two weeks before the primary, The Center for Media and Democracy released “ALEC in Florida,” documenting ALEC’s political influence in Tallahassee. The report provides word-for-word comparisons of ALEC model bills and Florida laws proposed by and/or passed through the efforts of ALEC-allied Tallahassee lawmakers. They include the “Stand Your Ground” gun law questioned in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin; the “Parent Trigger Act” to turn public schools into charter schools by a majority vote of parents; a “Paycheck Protection Act” to prohibit union dues deductions from the paychecks of public employees; and changes to voting laws that make voting more complicated for some groups. ALEC legislative framework provided structure for efforts to defeat federal health care reforms and is reflected in Amendment 1 on Florida’s November ballot. ALEC’s agenda is reflected in nine of 11 amendments, according to the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.
BEAN’S POWERFUL SUPPORTERS
Bean has the backing of two powerful Florida politicians who helped the ALEC agenda get a foothold in Florida: State Sen. John Thrasher and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Thrasher, as a House member, was named ALEC Legislator of the Year in 1998. As House Speaker (1999-2000), he worked with newly elected Bush to get bills resembling ALEC models passed.
Bean is receiving substantial financial support from ALEC allied corporate interests, Florida legislators and lobbyists. Three of Tallahassee’s most powerful lobbying firms — Southern Strategy, Ronald L. Book PA and Ballard Partners — who count ALEC interests among their clients, either gave to Bean’s campaign directly, or their clients did.
For nearly four decades, ALEC has focused on state capitals to pass laws it drafts that subordinate the people’s interests to special interests, its critics say.
“ALEC campaigns and model legislation have run the gamut of issues, but all have either protected or promoted a corporate revenue stream, often at the expense of consumers,” according to the report “ALEC: Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America,” released by the American Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group, in May 2010.
Bean’s campaign contributors include a donation from one of ALEC’s biggest benefactors, Koch Industries, the Kansas-based holding company of the billionaire Koch brothers. Charles and David Koch’s multi-billion-dollar fortune comes from chemical and energy production. They also own the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Palatka that is cleared to pump its pollutants into the St. Johns River. Koch money also helped launch the Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates against progressive or Democratic initiatives and protections for workers and the environment, according to SourceWatch, an affiliate of the Center for Media and Democracy. A recently launched $500,000 TV ad campaign suggests the Koch brothers are attempting to buy elections. The Patriot Majority USA, a group associated with U.S. Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), is behind it.
Bean, who served in the Florida House from 2000 to 2008, backed out of a special election for the seat vacated by the death of Sen. Jim King after Thrasher entered the race. Thrasher won, then was on the Senate redistricting committee that re-drew the new District 4 seat to include Nassau County where Bean lives.
The huge corporate investment in a primary race — where fewer than 50,000 of 215,000 eligible Duval and Nassau county Republicans voted — holds potential for huge returns for ALEC members, especially those who hope to profit from privatizing state prisons, public schools, state-run hospitals and government health care and safety net programs.
Critics say ALEC’s voter suppression law efforts are aimed at key Democratic Party constituencies — the elderly, students and the poor — whose votes put Barack Obama over the top in 2008. A sponsor of the voter ID law was Bean supporter Don Gaetz, Senate president-designate, who has also sponsored other bills that mirror ALEC models. Gaetz contributed $500 to Bean’s campaign through a Panhandle health care company he owns and another $500 from his Florida Leadership Alliance committee.
Voter identification legislation adopted in Florida and many other states in recent years mirrors an ALEC bill drafted in 2009, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. An affiliate group, Campus Progress, provides a link on its website to ALEC’s model bill, which critics say hinders the ability of college students to vote in the presidential election this year by not allowing them to change their addresses at the polls. College students voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008.
It was ALEC member Rep. Dennis Baxley who in 2011 sponsored the much-criticized early voting and registration changes, according to a report on ALEC’s influence on voting law by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Critics say that law is aimed at limiting the ability to vote of minorities and the working poor. Baxley contributed $100 to Bean’s campaign in 2009.
When Rep. Rachel V. Burgin from the Hillsborough County area proposed a bill in 2011 calling for the federal government to cut the corporate tax rate, she forgot to remove ALEC’s insignia on the draft. Burgin, identified in the “ALEC in Florida” report as an ALEC member, withdrew the bill after the embarrassing episode.
If Republicans like Weinstein fail to talk about ALEC influence in elections, it is likely because of the substantial threat ALEC poses to what is left of the moderate Republican representation in Tallahassee. In 2010, ALEC already had a strong grip on Tallahassee, with 60 members (46 in the House, 14 in the Senate) out of Florida’s 160 legislators, according to the “ALEC in Florida” study.
The District 4 Republican primary pitted the conservative wing of the party, which is backing Negron of Stuart for the powerful Senate presidency in 2016, against more moderate Republicans who are backing Jack Latvala of Clearwater. Latvala had Weinstein’s support.
Latvala is the renegade Republican who, in the 2012 legislative session, orchestrated a bipartisan coalition to defeat ALEC’s decade-long goal: privatization of Florida prisons. Two of the nine Republicans who opposed the bill were former sheriffs with bad experiences with for-profit prison managers. Others were not convinced the move would save the state money, The Palm Beach Post reported.
Negron gave Bean $500 on Aug. 3, then another $500 the day after the Aug. 14 primary through his Committee of Continuous Existence, which received a number of large donations from ALEC corporate allies and their lobbyists. The Johnson & Blanton lobbying group, whose clients include The GEO Group and its affiliate prison contractors GEO Care Inc., is included in that group. Travis Blanton of the lobbying firm gave Bean a direct donation of $500.
Following the money to Bean’s campaign and state officeholders from one Florida-based prison contractor offers a perspective of ALEC’s sphere of influence in Florida’s political process.
Figures from the National Institute on Money in State Politics show that between 2003 and 2012, the Boca Raton-based GEO Group made political investments of $1,907,914 in Florida, and just $229,500 in California, its second-biggest. Identified as a former ALEC member in a March 2011 article by Beau Hodai for Prison Legal News, a prisoner rights publication, GEO operates 109 facilities with 75,000 beds. Three of those, with 4,600 beds, are in Florida, according to the GEO Group website.
One of the recipients of GEO’s generosity was ALEC member Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island), Senate president in 2012 who is not seeking re-election due to term limits. In the lead-up to the 2012 legislative session, Haridopolos’ campaign received $35,500 in contributions (2010 and 2011) from GEO companies and their extended network of lobbyists, employees and family members, according to an April 10 story in the Columbia Journalism Review.
Thrasher and Bush were able to get the ball rolling for private prison contractors in 2000 by helping Rep. Durrell Peaden, an ALEC member, pass a bill that resembled an ALEC model. It allowed expanded use of prison labor by private companies and deductions from a prisoner’s wages to offset costs of incarceration, according to an August 2011 story in The Nation. ALEC drafted its prison privatization law in 1995.
In subsequent years, both Thrasher and Bush supported legislative efforts to give private companies a greater piece of what is now the state’s $2.4 billion prison budget.
Thrasher pushed a progression of ALEC-like tough-on-crime laws. In a campaign mailer, Thrasher touts his work with Bush to pass the 10-20-Life bill, targeting those using a gun to commit a crime.
In turn, prison interests have been generous to Republican Party candidates, like Bean, who get a Thrasher-Bush blessing. Over the last dozen years, money that flows to their anointed candidates has enabled Thrasher and Bush to become kingmakers in Florida politics.
In the 2012 legislative session, Thrasher revived efforts to privatize state prisons. As head of the Senate Rules Committee, he was able to get enough votes to introduce SB 2038; had it passed, it would have transferred management of as many as 27 prisons to the private sector.
Should the balance of power in the Senate, which holds the state purse strings, tip to ALEC-supported members in the November election, Florida could see a transfer of state-run prisons to private contractors.
Thrasher, Bush and Republican Party leaders have thrown their support behind several Senate candidates besides Bean who were successful in their primary races, including ALEC member John Legg of Port Richey. His opponent, Rob Wallace, who lost the primary, objected. “The Tallahassee political establishment is attempting to anoint the next senator from District 17,” Wallace said. “The party leadership seems to have forgotten what the primary is all about.”
If a former Republican state senator who recently left the party is right, these Republicans are likely to follow in lock-step with the powerful Republican leadership that endorsed them.
Former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, now an Independent, said in an Oct. 22 Associated Press story that Republican leaders “have no allowance for honest people, and they demand members just follow and shut up.”
Argenziano, who served on the state’s Public Service Commission, and is now seeking a Panhandle House seat, said she angered some Republicans with her vote against a power company rate increase. She decried the corporate money that is financing the GOP and the Tea Party. “It’s like the Koch brothers came to Florida and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ ”
“ALEC-affiliated Florida [Legislature] members have embraced ALEC’s prison privatization agenda wholeheartedly,” write the authors of “ALEC in Florida.”
Even though Thrasher’s prison bill earlier this year failed to dramatically expand the presence of private contractors in the state prison system, the door opened in early September for GEO’s subsidiary, GEO Care, as a contender for $58 million in the state budget for prisoner health care. Florida’s Joint Legislative Budget Commission, in a vote along party lines, interpreted the word “entities” in the General Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2011-’12 to mean the Department of Corrections can contract with for-profit providers of health care, a move that could affect nearly 3,000 workers statewide in January, according to a Sept. 11 report by the Times-Union. Unions representing state workers said they plan to sue.
In 2010, prison industries as a group invested nearly $1 million in Florida political races, according to figures compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The sector’s combined giving showed a clear preference for Republicans: $783,494 to the Florida Republican Party while Thrasher was chair, and $143,000 to the Florida Democratic Party. The most generous of prison corporations to Florida political races and the Florida Republican Party is The GEO Group.
In the last week of the 2010 Legislature, $24 million was designated to the corrections budget to close state facilities and fill beds in the new Blackwater facility operated by GEO.
In 2010, as Sen. Thrasher chaired the Florida Republican Party, The GEO Group gave the party $638,000, and its affiliate GEO Care gave $100,000, according to state records, making it one of the party’s top 15 contributors. That same year, The GEO Group gave $95,000 to the Florida Democratic Party, and GEO Care gave $10,000.
Though wearing two hats in 2010, one as party chair and one as state senator, Thrasher said he raised $55.4 million for the party, exceeding the three-year fundraising total of the previous chair. (The Florida Democratic Party raised $44.4 million that year.)
The Republicans won a two-thirds super majority in both chambers of the Legislature in 2010, and Thrasher received credit from party leaders for reversing the party’s financial and political fortunes. The following year, Thrasher’s successor raised $22.1 million, according to figures from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Some of the biggest contributors to the Florida Republican Party in 2010 realized a windfall from tax cuts passed by Republicans in 2011, according to a June 2011 story in The Palm Beach Post. The Post calculated Walt Disney World shaved an estimated $1.3 million off its tax bill; Florida Power and Light, $1.8 million — while the average homeowner whose property was assessed at $198,000 received a $28 savings.
Bean’s personal campaign fund of about $400,000 at the end of July 2012, reflecting donations made as far back as 2007, shows two GEO contributions of the annual maximum of $500 for an individual campaign account. GEO lobbyists also kicked in thousands. But GEO also gave $50,000 in June 2012 to the conservative legislative leadership’s political committee, the Florida Conservative Majority, which can accept unlimited amounts. It in turn donated $2.8 million to the Liberty Foundation, an electioneering communications committee that helped Bean’s campaign with an estimated $2.5 million in spending that included TV and print ads, direct mail and other media. Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, in line to be Senate president in 2014, heads the Florida Conservative Majority.
The Florida Conservative Majority received the greatest portion of the $3.75 million it had amassed since 2010 from the Florida Republican Party — more than $2.75 million. The names of individuals who gave to the Republican Party are identified, but their scent on the money trail is lost when the party shuffles it to committees that reshuffle it to other committees like the Liberty Foundation.
Jones, who operates Liberty Foundation, is also on more than a dozen other political committees, including one that recently sent out a deceptive mailer attacking Jacksonville Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat seeking re-election in a redistricted seat. The mailer appears to come from “progressives” associated with the Democratic Party, but in fact originates from a group called “Progressives,” headed by Jones.
Other large donations to the Florida Conservative Majority came from the Florida Medical Association ($100,000), which Thrasher once represented as a lobbyist, former ALEC member Blue Cross and Blue Shield (two donations totaling $75,000) and a Disney entertainment division ($50,000).
Even after Thrasher left the Legislature in 2000, he had an interest in private-run prisons as a lobbyist for Southern Strategy, whose clients have included many ALEC corporations and Corrections Corporation of America, a Tennessee-based company. A number of ALEC members who are or were Southern Strategy clients contributed to recent state Senate races, including Bean’s.
Lobbyist Paul Bradshaw, a confidant and a former adviser to Gov. Bush, formed Southern Strategy in 1999. His firm was one of three Tallahassee lobbying groups that reported revenues in excess of $1 million for the first quarter of 2012 — and all three firms counted prison contractors among their clients.
Bradshaw wrote the Bush A+ Education Reform plan, which mirrored the ALEC model.
Bradshaw’s wife, Sally, a long-time Bush associate as a policy and campaign adviser, contributed $500 to Bean’s campaign in June 2012. She was appointed to the Florida State Board of Education in September 2011. The Board of Education in the past year helped expand virtual and charter schools in the state, two ALEC agenda items. The Board of Education helped Bush and ALEC’s school privatization sector earlier this year by overruling local education officials who claimed standards of the charter school and virtual school applicants did not meet the standards in their counties.
Southern Strategy’s clients include education-testing companies that benefit from the ALEC agenda of high-stakes testing to measure student performance and evaluate teachers and school performance. Such evaluations are used to close public schools and turn them over to private management companies or replace them with charter schools.
Lobbyists with Southern Strategy in 2006 included David Rancourt, a former deputy chief of staff for Bush, and former aide to Thrasher. He is still with the firm. Also on the Southern Strategy team is Chris Dudley, a former legislative adviser to Bush who joined the firm in 2000. Thrasher sold his partnership in the lobbying firm in 2009 for more than $1.5 million.
Southern Strategy, whose clients include a prison management firm based in Texas, gave $5,000 to ALEC in 2010, and was listed among the “Trustee” level sponsors of the 2011 ALEC Annual Conference, according to information compiled by Sourcewatch, an affiliate of the Center for Media and Democracy.
CORNERING THE PRISON MARKET
In the seven years preceding Thrasher’s return to the Legislature in 2009 as a senator, The GEO Group made great strides toward getting a bigger piece of the state’s prison budget. The circumstances under which it has expanded and received $110 million in taxpayer money to build the largest of its three Florida facilities has been surrounded in controversy, detailed in “Legacy of Corruption: GEO Buys Off the Florida Political Establishment,” a March 2011 story in Prison Legal News.
Beau Hodai writes that the construction of the 2,000-bed Blackwater Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa County, opened by GEO in 2010, was made possible by language inserted into the 2008-’09 budget by Rep. Ray Sansom (R-Destin). Sansom was later indicted for lying to a grand jury and misconduct for inserting a $6 million appropriation to build an aircraft hangar for a Destin businessman who was a generous contributor to the Florida Republican Party. The charges were dropped in May 2011, after a judge disallowed a key prosecution witness.
The Prison Legal News story raises questions about the role of Senate President-designate Gaetz in what had the appearance of a done deal for GEO to build the Blackwater prison long before the 2008-’09 appropriations bill passed. Gaetz has sponsored a number of bills resembling ALEC laws, including HB 4129 to require picture identification at the polls in order to vote.
One of the big three lobbying firms in the first quarter of 2012, Ronald L. Book PA, was paid between $10,000 and $19,000 by GEO. Book and family members gave Bean $2,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. Book’s portfolio of current and past clients includes ALEC corporations and affiliates. In 1995, Book pled guilty to giving $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions to several candidates over several years.
The other first-quarter 2012 million-dollar lobbying firm, Ballard Partners, also counts GEO among its clients. Ballard Partners gave Bean $500 in September 2011. Ballard’s long-time clients have included Corrections Corporations of America.
Ballard Partners lobbyists include William Turbeville, who in 1998 worked as a chief policy adviser to Thrasher and joined Bush’s staff in 2001, rising to policy director before leaving to become a lobbyist in 2003.
Ballard’s clients include former and current ALEC members or associates including Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Verizon and Medimmune Inc., a division of drug maker and ALEC ally AstraZeneca Inc.
A number of Ballard’s clients, as of the end of March 2012, gave the maximum $500 allowed directly to Bean’s campaign: Automated Health Care Solutions, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Florida East Coast Railway, Florida Society of Pathologists, GEO Care Inc., four affiliates of Northport Health Services of Florida LLC, United States Sugar Corporation and Universal Health Care Inc.
A number of those names also show up as contributors in much greater amounts to the Florida Republican Party in 2010, the year Thrasher headed it. In 2010, Automated Health Care Solutions gave $910,350, the sixth biggest party contributor that year; U.S. Sugar gave $2,214,095, the second largest; and Blue Cross and Blue Shield gave $2,038,297, third largest.
Automated opposed a measure in the 2010 session that would have imposed new restrictions on doctors dispensing prescription drugs. The company gave $1 million in the summer before the legislative session to leadership committees headed by ALEC members Sen. Haridopolos and Rep. Dean Cannon.
Automated, Blue Cross and U.S. Sugar also gave big to Florida Conservative Majority, which funneled $2.8 million to Liberty Foundation for communications and media help in Bean’s campaign.
Hodai notes that Thrasher’s clients as a lobbyist included serveral Florida Chamber of Commerce and ALEC member corporations and that Thrasher, prior to joining the Senate, was general counsel to Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. Hodai ties the involvement of Florida Chamber of Commerce, headed by former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, in crafting anti-union Pay Check Protection law that mirrored ALEC models for House and Senate bills, the eventual Senate bill 830 sponsored by Thrasher.
Bense is also chair of the Florida-based James Madison Institute, which receives funding from the Koch brothers, the author writes.
The flood of money into political campaigns and the reshuffling that makes it difficult to identify donors has many critics. Though U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia helped strike down limits on political spending by corporations and labor unions in the Citizens United decision, he is a strong advocate of transparency.
“Thomas Jefferson would have said the more speech, the better,” Scalia told CNN’s Piers Morgan in July. “That’s what the First Amendment is all about. So long as the people know where the speech is coming from.”
Billee Bussard is a retired Jacksonville Beach journalist and a former Times-Union editorial page writer who currently serves as volunteer communications director for the Duval County Democratic Party.